Major cultural events of the Majuli are an integral part of the life of the people. Seasonal variations and celebration of festivals are correlated. This has a direct impact on the activities and occupation pattern of people of the Majuli. The Sattras are the major centers where the local people assemble in large numbers for the celebration of festivals. These are the occasions when people get united and perform the rituals along with the Sattradhikar and the bhaktas. These are times when people get spiritually and rejuvenated by following the practices. It gives them a better understanding of the Vaishnavite principles and philosophy.
Another aspect of the celebration of festivals is related to the farming practices. The Sattras give equal importance to these festivals. These are also occasions when the villagers and the Sattradhikar along with the bhaktas come together to celebrate the event.
Hence, the Sattras give equal importance to religious events and farming practices and the same ideology is transmitted to the villagers as well, as they are their followers.
Following are the festivals celebrated in the river island of Majuli:-
- FALGUTSAV: Falgutsav, Doul Yatra, or more commonly, Phakuwa is a festival of colour stated to have played at Lord Krishna's birth place at Gokula between Krishna and the gopis. In some of the borgeets also Shankaradeva and Madhavdeva have narrated how Lord Krishna played with color, rang or ahira with his fellow friends. As this festival is observed in the month of Phaguna (Feb-March), it has been called falgutsav. This festival is observed both in the Sattras as well as in the villages to celebrate spring season when nature is full of resources which could be used to prepare for the difficult times in future. On the full moon day of the Indian month of Phaguna the image of Krishna, popularly known as Dol- Govinda is taken seven times around a holy fire and installed on a swing. This festival lasts for three days. On the afternoon of the third day, the image is taken out in a temple like house (dual) in a procession to the adjoining areas. The term Doul Yatra is derived from this procession. During the travel of the image of the Lord villagers in the neighbourhood come out to the streets and offer prayer along with some dakshina and other articles. It is sated that falgutsav was first introduced by Shankaradeva himself in the Bardowa Than, Shankaradeva's birth place, and then at Barpeta Sattra. When the procession returns a mock fight takes place between people with coloured water being sprinkled on each other by people. After which the image is installed back in its original place. This mock fight also commemorates the colourful spring and the happy environment. The colour used is an antidote to pox. Falgutsav is also known as Fakuwa or holi. Repair work of boats and thatched roofs take place in the Sattras and in the villages. Craft work like making hand fan with cane, bamboo basket and boats starts due to the availability of materials and for their extensive use in the rainy season.
- BIHU: Bihu is the national festival of Assam. There are three Bihus in Assam held in three different times of the year, perhaps fixed according to the urge of early human habit in a particular topographical context. They are Bohag Bihu, Kati Bihu and Magh Bihu. The first is observed in the middle of April, the second at the close of the Hindu month of Asvin or Ashin and beginning of Kartik or Kati (middle of October), while the third is observed at the close of the Hindu month of Pausha or Puh and beginning of Magh (middle of January). Of the three Bihus, the Bohag Bihu also called Rangali Bihu is the most popular and widespread over all sections of the people irrespective of caste and religion having a secular character. The popularity of this festival among the various communities and its composite character with the folk and spiritual elements of the society. The Bohag Bihu is marked by bathing and feeding of the cows, reading of the verses from the religious scriptures reflecting the activities of Lord Krishna, use of Khol and organization of the smaran-kirtan. There is an organization of the congregation prayer at the village namghar on sankranti day (first day of the Bihu). This is celebrated for three to seven days commencing on the last day of the Chaitra month of the Indian calendar. On this day, leaves and vegetables are fed to the domestic animals like cow etc. in belief of their well being. Then the animals are washed with turmeric and mati mah (pulse) as they are considered to be antibiotics. The cowshed is besmeared with thick smoke created by burning a heap of husks, grass and a special kind of herb called makhiyati, believed to burn the mosquitoes and other insects, and thereby contribute towards the good health and breeding of the animals. This whole procedure is actually geared towards preparing the animals for the forthcoming cropping season (Xali paddy). The second day of the celebration is the first day of a new year. It is celebrated by performing the Bihu dance wearing clothes of Muga silk and playing Dhol and playing of bamboo instruments like gagana, taka and buffalo-horn called pepa. The dance signifies new life and hope and was originally performed in the fields to symbolize the fertile and productive nature of the earth and the accompanying songs reflected different facets of life. Bihu teams consisting of young and male members of the village go from house to house, singing huchari kirtan (a kind of congregation singing /chorus), and performing the Bihu dance. They bless the householder and collect whatever amount of dakshina (contribution) he could offer to the team. It is customary that the dakshina should include a piece of gamocha (an Assamese towel) since a symbol of gifting of a piece of cloth (bastra dan) is considered of great religious merit.17 It is customary to eat rare varieties of pot herbs (xak in Assamese) during the celebration of Rongali Bihu. Different varieties of pancakes and confectionaries made out of coconut, sesame seeds, jaggery, rice powder, sticky rice, and milk products are prepared in a traditional way. Amongst some ethnic communities, brewing of rice beer and preparation of pork and chicken is a must.
- ALI AI LIGANG (MISHING): Among the most widely popular festivals of the Mishings having both religious and secular tone is the one called by them as Ali-Aye-Lrigang, the spring festival observed on the first Wednesday of the month of Phagun at the beginning of the spring season. It is the national festival of the Mishings to be equated with the Bohag Bihu of the others. The term Ali-Aye-Lrigang means the festival of sowing seeds; ali means paddy, seed or root called alu; aye means fruit, and Lrigang means the day of sowing seeds. The entire term means the day of sowing seeds. On the first Wednesday, the Mishing perform religious ceremonies related to agriculture. Early in the morning the members of a Mishing family go to the field under the leadership of the mother or the head woman of a family who transplants some rice according to their hill practices at the corner of the field. After this they offer their prayers to "guingsomin", "donyi-polo" and then commence cultivation. The festival is celebrated by consuming and offering fish, meat and cake made of bara rice. For that purpose, a fish and meat collection drive is undertaken collectively by the whole village using knifes and other iron and bamboo implements. Ali Aye Lrigang is popularly called by the non- Mishings as Mishing Bihu. And gumrag, the most distinguished of the dance forms of the Mishings which depicts the various activities in their daily life dominates the whole festival. The movements in this dance enhance the text they accompany. Magh Bihu is celebrated on the day of the makar sankranti (mid-january) when the sun enters the northern solar sphere. This festival is also known as Bhogali Bihu which means festival of eating. The harvesting is over by then and there is plenty to eat. The Magh Bihu is significant as first, it is celebrated at the close of the season of harvesting of the winter crops: bao mainly, and Xali paddy and second, it is the season of availability of all sorts of food items: milk, curd, cream, rice, fish, pulses, gur etc. Thus, after harvesting it is time for recreation and feeding. But this being the season of cold, the major way of celebrating it is to make heaps of firewood, or dry paddy straw called nara and make a fire called meji in open or in the paddy fields and to arrange grand feasts on the night before maker sankranti called uruka. Various kinds of cake (pitha) and breakfast items (jalpan) are prepared by the villagers. The next day, people gather at the village namghar and perform congregational prayers. In some of the villages people arrange a grant feast on that day. This Bihu is not popular among the tribal communities in Majuli. While the villagers celebrate it with bonfires and feasts, the Sattras observe it with congregational prayers and music. A grass rope is tied around the bigger trees with canonical hymns written on the leaves to prevent damage to the fruit bearing trees. Food prepared from the newly harvested crop is offered Namghar. People of Majuli observe the Kati Bihu on the Ahin-Kati Sankranti day. It is also called Kangali i.e. poor. The season of October-November is one of scarcity particularly in Majuli. The season of rain has just ended, paddy fields are green but not yet brown, domestic animals are yet very thin having passed the flood season with lack of grazing areas leading to scarcity of milk and milk products and sugarcanes are not yet mature for making gur, and so forth. On the day of Kati Bihu, the basil (tulsi) plant is ceremoniously planted and the offering of light to the plant constitutes the special function of the day. This act of offering light continues throughout the month. In the Sattras of Brahma Sanghati, special installation of light on tall bamboo and cane structures is made. This installation is known as Akash Bati and prayers are held for previous sattradhikars' well being, of people and world peace. This period is actually the time when the paddy plant is fully grown. Hence it attracts a lot of insects and pests. So the Sattras have developed a mandatory ritual of installing Akash Bati. This practice is then followed in the villages as well. Villagers go to the paddy fields in the evening to light candles (batti) praying for God Almighty's grace for good of the harvest and for destruction and of the insects that may destroy crops. It is a custom for the cultivators in the Majuli Island to go to the fields next day to see the growing crops. At noon that day they go to the namghar and organize a congregational prayer i.e. namkirtan, distribute mag-prasad and offer salutation to the God Almighty for the welfare of all.
- BISU (DEORI): The Bisu of the Deoris begins in the first Wednesday of the (mid-April) month of Bohag. The Bisu is both a secular and a religious festival. Preparations for the Bisu festival are made for the whole month of Chot preceding the festival. The actual festival starts on the first Wednesday of the Bohag month along with the worship of their god Kundi-Mama (Hara-Gauri) with the sacrifice of thirteen fowls at the sal (shrine) of the priest. On the first day the young and old together go to the house of the chief priest and spend the whole night dancing and singing there. The next morning they go to the river and take common bath and also bathe their cattle. Since that day till the next Wednesday the young girls and boys of the village dance and sing at the open Marang house of the Gosani Sal. The Deoris have certain reservations about entering the thanghar. They consider 'dumahi' to be inauspicious. That's why they don't celebrate the sankranti of magh or bohag bihu as done by the general Assamese community. They consider Wednesday or Thursday to be auspicious days. Hence, they consider only the first Wednesday after the magh or bohag sankranti as uruka and only then the Carideoris perform puja in the thanghar.
- BARSIK BHAONA-SABAH/BAR SABAH: The Bisu of the Deoris begins in the first Wednesday of the (mid-April) month of Bohag. The Bisu is both a secular and a religious festival. Preparations for the Bisu festival are made for the whole month of Chot preceding the festival. The actual festival starts on the first Wednesday of the Bohag month along with the worship of their god Kundi-Mama (Hara-Gauri) with the sacrifice of thirteen fowls at the sal (shrine) of the priest. On the first day the young and old together go to the house of the chief priest and spend the whole night dancing and singing there. The next morning they go to the river and take common bath and also bathe their cattle. Since that day till the next Wednesday the young girls and boys of the village dance and sing at the open Marang house of the Gosani Sal. The Deoris have certain reservations about entering the thanghar. They consider 'dumahi' to be inauspicious. That's why they don't celebrate the sankranti of magh or bohag bihu as done by the general Assamese community. They consider Wednesday or Thursday to be auspicious days. Hence, they consider only the first Wednesday after the magh or bohag sankranti as uruka and only then the Carideoris perform puja in the thanghar.
- BAH-GOROWA: This is an occasion where the bamboos used for various purposes are seasoned. This is done in wetlands or household ponds filled up due to heavy rains. Cow dung and neem leaves are used as well for seasoning. This process protects the bamboo from insects and termite.
- GARAKSHIA SABAH:This is a community celebration where prayers are offered for the well being of the cows and cow-boys.
- JANMASHTAMI: This festival is celebrated on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Krishna. It falls on the eighth lunar day of the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadra of the Indian calendar. Some of the Satras perform it for two days, while in some others it is performed for one day. It is marked by the offering of Puja, holding of the congregational prayer - nam-prasanga, fasting(brat), and performance of drama depicting the birth of Lord Krishna. It is believed that fasting on the day of Janmastami would bring immense religious merit (punya) equal to the offering of panda (oblution) in the holy waters of Ganga. On the contrary, those who do not observe fast shall take their birth as demon (rakshasa). The coconut which is indispensable as an item of offering in all other religious functions is prohibited to be offered in the Janmastami; on the other hand, pakamithoi is a special item in the offerings during this festival. Janmastami is believed to be a day of thick cloud and heavy shower with much thunderstorm and if the night passes without rain and thunderstorm, people consider the day to be unenjoyable.
- PO'RAG (MISHING): Po'Rag is performed in the middle of cultivation so that ancestral spirits may protect the crops from pests and other natural calamities. Dabur Puja is observed as a post-harvesting religious festival, worshipping Kuber to be the goddess of wealth and agriculture.
- DEO PUJA (DEORI): This is the most important puja of the Deoris. They perform this puja on the third Wednesday after Deori bihu commences. Besides offering three goats, pigeons and chicken, etc. in sacrifice on behalf of the whole community, individual contributions for sacrifice are also accepted. It is considered inauspicious if the goats' heads are not severed at one go. So people anxiously wait for news regarding the sacrifice. If the sacrificial animals are in excess, then under the instructions of the bor deori, they are offered for sacrifice on some other appointed day.
- PAAL NAAM: 'Paalnaam' is a compound word, pal and nam. Pal (Sanskrit paryaya for one after another) means by turn and nam means congregational prayer, chanting the name of God. And so, paalnaam means holding of incessant congregational prayer or chanting of the name of God by the inmates of the Sattra in group and in rotation. This is celebrated on a large scale in the Auniati Sattra during the last five days of the Kati month (October-November). A lot of people from all over Assam come to take part in this programme. It is a congregational prayer which continues for few days. Palnam is organized by other Sattras too, but they have options to select the dates and duration for holding it. For example, in the Garamur Sattra it is celebrated for one day only which starts on the closing day of the Paalnaam at Auniati. The origin of Palnam is to be traced to the mid-16th century. It is recorded that when Madhavdeva was kept in confinement by the men of the Ahom King Suhungmung allas Dihingiya Raja (1497-1539) on charges of his failure to capture elephants on his behalf with threats of dire consequences, all devotees at the advice of Shankaradeva then started a kind of unending prayer for his life and release. It is further recorded that it was during a session of such congregation that Madhavdeva came back safe and delighted the chanting inmates by offering his salutation and with whatever amount of rice and salt he had with him. It is from this legend that Paalnaam, meaning continuous chanting of the nama of God or prayer by groups of devotees came into practice among the Vaishnava circle; and making gift of salt and rice became a custom in the agenda of the Paalnaam. A boat with the Bhagawata is placed in east -west direction at the center of the namghar where the boat symbolizes the agency for salvation (bhavatarana) of the soul, the sanctum sanctorum, Manikut of namghar is thereby imagined as Vaikuntha on earth for those days and the Bhagawata itself as Krishna. The inmates then take their seat on both sides of the boat and begin to chant nama in group. There are three turns (pal) in a day : early turn (ag pal), middle turn (maj pal) and the last turn (sesh pal). At the end of a pal (turn) it is the custom that the Satradhikara and his juniors, the Deka Adhikara and the (third) Govindapuriya prostrate before the Vaishnavas and offer salutation (sewa). During the pause between the pals assembled devotees and other believers offer naivedya and obtain blessings. Their offer includes among other items, salt (lon) as in the medieval context, gift of salt is considered as equal to the gift of gold. On the fifth day at the end of paal naam, the sattradhikar enters the manikut and makes pradakshina around namghar and takes ashirwad from the Vaishnavas. Following this, the Satradhikara and the others enter the manikut and reinstate the Bhagavata in the proper place.
- RAAS UTSAV: The Raas Lila is an annual festival being performed on the full moon day (Purnima) in the months of October-November (Kati- Aghun) during the autumn season. It is not known for certain in which Sattra Rasa Lila was first introduced in Majuli as a performing festival. During this festival the Sattras draw a large number of people. The Raas Lila is the story of the life of Lord Krishna presented in the performing art form. It begins with the birth of Krishna, his upbringing at the house of king Nanda, his tending the cows at Gokula along with his fellow cowherds, his childhood activities, his killing of the demons like Bakasur, Putana, Kaliya, and of Kamsa- his maternal uncle, at various times of his youth and on various other occasions. Finally his amorous play with the Gopis.In the Udasin Sattras, the Ras dance is performed by the celibate inmates of the Sattra, the Bhakats donning female costume in the night in the namghar with music and dance. Performance of the Ras Lila involves various classes of musical instruments, music and dance, and artifacts mask and painting. First Raas Leela was performed at Dakhinpat Sattra in 1840 A.D. and it is continued with full ritual ways. These constitute Assamese classical music and dance. Raas Lila was made into a stage performance by Pitambardeva Goswami of Garamur Sattra in the year 1934; in the year 1950 he permitted the girls of the Sattra to take roles in the Raas Lila and dance. Today, in most of the centers women participation is the normal way to carry on the Raas Lila performance. This festival has a great impact on the life and culture of the people of Majuli in particular, though it is a part of the culture of the Sattras as a festival it is performed by many of the villages. During the festival every man and woman and child remains busy receiving visitors and performing different duties related to the festival. There are reports to the effect that during the festival that lasts for four to five days at a stretch, lakhs of outsiders visit the island, and every family is to receive and keep one or more of them for those days.
- DIWALI: It is the festival of light celebrated to commemorate the home coming of Lord Ram from fourteen years of exile. It is however celebrated less ostentatiously in the Majuli.
- AMROK (MISHING): In the month of Bhadon/Ahin (August/ September), the Mishings observe a festival called 'Amrok'. Every household observes this festival where food is prepared out of harvested crop and is offered to the ancestors. Another dancing event called Porag takes place after the harvest. The neighbouring villages are invited to take part in the celebrations which lead to dancing and beating of drums. Though initially the event looks competitive it finally ends in harmony.
- SAWANIA PUJA(DEORI): Sawania Puja is so called because it is inaugurated in the month of Sawun. The door of the thanghar remains closed after performing this puja till Magh. That's why it is also called "Cipere Giduwa" puja. The community offers a goat in sacrifice during this puja.
- NA KHOWA: Na-khowa is a customary celebration in terms of a household feast along with the local community with newly harvested crops in the first part of January (puh-Magh).
- NORA-CHIGA (MISHING): The Mishing celebrate Na-khowa as Nora-chiga or puh-rug at the village level inviting all the relatives settled and spread far and wide. The Vaisnavite performances like Raas are conducted in Mishing villages also and the children are encouraged to learn the Vaishnavite culture. The religious texts like kirtana and namghosa are also respected in Mishing culture.